From a young age, I’ve loved a good villain. I’ve always been the type to secretly root for the bad guys. Villains seem so larger than life, so much better than the hero or heroine. Villains are more powerful, more driven, more ambitious, and yes, let’s face it, they have more sex appeal. As I grew up, I began to interrogate this larger-than-life appeal of the villain, and I realized the draw had to do as much with the villain’s transformative power as with my own personal likes and wants.
The power of the villain lies in his or her ability to morph our world beyond the norms we see everyday. Villains are transformative in that they exist outside the ordered world of the “good.” They challenge the status quo, they shake up the social order, they turn the binary definitions of good and bad on their heads by injecting just the right amount of chaos and destruction. They shake things up. They present us with fun-house versions of ourselves that show us what we could be like if we were just a little less compliant, a little (or sometimes a lot) less orderly, less “status quo.” That is their power. Villains turn the world on its head as they show us the power of our alternate selves, the selves we try to keep tightly leashed in a world that can be all too predictable and boring.
In other words, what we love in a villain says a lot about what we secretly desire for ourselves. There are plenty of villains who speak - loudly, at times - to my inner bad girl, and help me dream of ways to lose that status quo: Princess Azula of Avatar fame defies her family, and gendered societal norms, to attempt to become Empress, and a powerful Fire Bender in her own right. The Wicked Queen of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty does not fade quietly into old age, but rather uses her wiles to grab and hold an entire kingdom under her literal spell. Characters like these really grabbed my imagination, and helped me think of what kind of alternative models of power might be lurking just beyond the regular “good girls” who seem to populate kid’s cartoons. But none were as appealing as Prince Lotor, the gold standard of evil cartoon royalty.
Everyday after school, as a child of the late eighties, I would rush home, fix a snack, and have barely enough time to plop down in front of the TV, before the faraway planet called Arus beckoned me. This was the home of The Voltron Force, who fought the evil Drule Empire with the help of their robotic lions that transformed into a badass robot named- you guessed it- Voltron.
Voltron was remarkable for a number of reasons. It was one of the first introductions of anime-style cartoons to an American audience, and we kids loved it. The style of drawing was so much more serious-looking than the cutesy art of Pound Puppies or Care Bears. These were cartoons that looked like they were drawn for adults. Furthermore, the subject matter blew our elementary school aged minds. The themes - war, its aftermath, reconstruction, slavery, death, and violence - were far more serious than the other cartoons we usually engaged with. But the real reason I was so drawn to this particular cartoon had to do with the villain, the blue skinned and romantically obsessed crown prince of the Drule Empire, Prince Lotor.
He mesmerized me, from the top of his flowing white hair, to the tips of his sky-blue toes. He was just so edgy, for a girl of the 80’s. He kept a harem of slave girls at his beck and call, and one of the earliest episodes shows him lounging, a goblet of dark red wine at his fingertips, while his harem girls dance and twirl for his pleasure. He cares nothing for them, however, because he is determined to marry the Princess of Arus, who is a talented pilot of the Blue Lion, and a member of the Voltron Force. In other words, he’s an evil guy deeply in love with someone who is morally opposed to him, and this creates an interesting schism in his dark, dark soul.
Lotor tries everything to capture the princess and force her into marriage, from kidnapping to poisoning entire planets. Did this convince me of his evil? Why no, of course not. It just served to underscore how much more powerful the love of a good villain could be. While the Voltron Force saved people’s lives and played with their pet palace mice, Lotor was out scheming to crush entire planets to win the love of his princess. Long before Twilight made stalking chic, Lotor was hiding in coffins and hanging out with witches, to try and bring the princess over to his side. And he never quits trying to convert the moral center of the entire cartoon, the naive Princess Allura, into a more worldly, more hedonistic ruler of the Drule Empire. It seemed to me he was urging her to be a stronger, more whole person, albeit with a side of evil thrown in.
But what’s a little evil, in comparison with an entire empire? Lotor’s attempts to convert a staunch good girl into someone more worldly and hedonistic struck a deep chord with this sheltered young Southern girl eager to see the world. Through him, I began to explore questions about what might happen if I took a path less traveled, and followed buried instincts rather than established expectations. Even though she ultimately rejected him, I like to think Lotor opened up the princess’s sheltered little world just a smidge, and by extension, for me. For that, he will always be my favorite villain.